Going to the Mikveh: The Day After

As both symbol and expression of the profound change required of a convert to Judaism, the mikveh (mikvah) is often a deeply emotional experience.

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Recalling yesterday, I remember a fleeting moment in which I'm emerging naked and dripping wet, but in the next moment all I'm aware of is the warmth of Mrs. Markovitz's embrace as she wraps me in a towel and plants an affectionate kiss on my cheek. In retrospect I recognize that I might have used these exact words to imagine birth from the point of view of a newborn.

But in fact, I've just exited the mikveh [ritual pool] and, after another kiss and hug from my friend and Jewish mentor, Sue, I'm alone with my reflection in the dressing-room mirror, seeing myself as a Jew for the first time. Knowing that it's silly even as I do it, I can't help but look to see if my physical appearance was changed by such a profoundly spiritual experience. 

As I dried myself off and dressed, the intensely surreal quality of the previous moments began to recede and I was glad I had taken Rabbi Greenspoon's advice to schedule my beit din [a three-person rabbinical court that rules on conversion] and mikveh for a Friday morning. I had taken the rest of the day off and ahead of me stretched a long afternoon that would glide gently into Shabbat.

I confess to a few butterflies in my stomach earlier that morning and a whole flock of them in the moments before I entered the mikveh.  I wasn't worried about what I knew or didn't know, I wasn't afraid of the mikveh, and I certainly didn't have any doubts about my decision. Furthermore, I knew that my conversion to Judaism would not really take place that morning but had taken place in my heart gradually during the preceding months as I internalized Jewish values, beliefs, and customs. Nevertheless, the beit din and the mikveh were unquestionably significant events that had to occur in order for Judaism to recognize me,and November 8 would forever mark that moment in my personal story.

visiting a mikvehEven a day later, I'm unable to say what it was precisely that made me nervous as I got myself ready and traveled to the mikveh that morning, but whatever it was, I forgot about it as I sat and talked to the three rabbis who comprised my beit din. I had met each of them previously when they taught their respective portions of the conversion classes offered jointly by the local Conservative synagogues. A few months earlier, the idea of sitting and talking to one rabbi would have intimidated me, but after spending more than a year meeting with various rabbis and studying with Rabbi Greenspoon, I found our meeting that morning quite comfortable.

In advance of the beit din, I had sent each rabbi a piece I had written describing my background and explaining the circumstances of my decision to convert to Judaism, which provided a comfortable jumping-off point for our conversation. All of the rabbis were kind and supportive, and there was a seamless transition from our initial friendly chatting to the subject of Judaism. I recall a lot of laughter and lightheartedness in our four-way conversation, and I got so involved in our discussion that it rather startled me to hear one of them say, "It's time for the Big Dunk!"--a reference to my own term for the mikveh.

As I walked down the hall, the event began to take on a dreamlike quality. By the time I reached the dressing room for the mikveh, I had that odd sensation of being outside of myself watching myself as both actor and spectator. I showered and let Mrs. Markovitz (the "mikveh lady") know I was ready, and I walked through the door. There was so much going on in my head and my heart that I was only minimally aware of being naked and, in fact, only minimally aware that Mrs. Markovitz and Sue were in the room with me. But when I came out of the water, the warmth and welcoming I felt from them was palpable.

I had frankly wondered how this Orthodox Jewish woman who I had met just moments earlier would view my conversion to Conservative Judaism, but now there was no doubting the sincerity of her welcome. Additionally, the decision of whether or not to have my friend stay with me in the mikveh had been a difficult one to make and one which, in fact, I didn't make until the last possible moment. Fortunately for me, I knew Sue would be fine with whatever I decided when the time came. Had I made the decision earlier, I most likely would have decided against it but, having come that far, I knew as I stood there that I wanted to have someone close to me to share the memory of this with for the rest of my life. It just felt right. And it was.

After the mikveh, Mrs. Markovitz, Sue, and I joined the rabbis for readings and prayers, singing and hugs. If I had to compress my overall impression of the day into one word, that word would be "warm." I felt suffused with love and acceptance, and I was very aware of how blessed I was to have the company and the undivided attention of these three very different but deeply spiritual men, the love and support of my friend, and the acceptance of the community. I don't think I will ever forget the fullness of that feeling, the completeness of that moment.

I spent much of the rest of the day replaying the events of the morning in my mind, rewinding again and again in an effort not to forget any detail. When the time came to light the Shabbat candles and recite the berakhot--blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for enabling us to reach this season--for the first time as a Jewish woman, it did indeed feel different. After the many weeks of anticipation, I felt especially peaceful and fortunate to have found my spiritual home. At services that night I was still kind of "floating" from the events of the day. They were particularly well attended because there was a bat mitzvah.

As I did my best to keep up with the prayers and the readings, I noticed some women seated in front of me fumbling through the siddur [prayerbook]. At the end of services they turned and explained that they were visitors, not Jewish, and that they "didn't know what they were doing." I smiled and thought to myself, "Ha! They assume I'm Jewish," followed immediately by "I am Jewish!"So I smiled to make them feel welcome and said, "That's OK. I remember how it feels."

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Terry Himes lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she practices law and resides with the youngest of her three children.